A fresher approach for ordinary New Zealanders

I’m as fascinated by the rise of Jacinda Ardern as any other political junkie.  I’ve always been a bit puzzled, struggling to see what issue she has led or what blows she had managed to land on the government.    Then again, she seems to have something different –  perhaps even more electorally important.   I’ve been dipping into accounts of Bob Hawke’s rise –  the last case I’m aware of that where major opposition party changed leaders close to an election (in that case only four weeks out) and won.     It isn’t clear that Bob Hawke was a better Prime Minister than Bill Hayden might have been, or that David Lange was a better Prime Minister than Bill Rowling would have been, but in both cases the new leaders had something –  a degree of connection, engagement etc –  that the deposed leaders didn’t.     Reading the accounts of the last weeks of Bill Hayden’s leadership of the ALP, the party had become as disheartened and lacking belief in its own ability to win (despite still leading in the polls), as some suggest the New Zealand Labour Party had become.    Quite what the Ardern phenomenon amounts to I guess we’ll see over the next few weeks.  From her comments so far, I could imagine her campaigning as Hawke did –  both the upbeat theme of “reconciliation”, and the more cynical description in (sympathetic) leading Australian journalist Paul Kelly’s book “no avenue of vote-buying or economic expansion was left untouched”.

For now, we are told that the “Fresh Approach” slogan is apparently out, and a new slogan and some new policies are soon to be launched.  Since no party really seemed to be campaigning on policies that might make a real and decisive for ordinary New Zealanders’ prospects, in many respect a fresher approach should be welcome.  Of course, it rather depends what is in that policy mix.

My interests here are primarily economic.  In an interview with the Dominion-Post this morning, the journalist put it to Ardern that “National will campaign on its economic record. Is that where Labour is weak?”.     Perhaps it is Labour’s weak point.  But what sort of “record” is the government to campaign on?  An unemployment rate that, while inching down, has been above the level it was when they took office –  already almost a year into a recession –  every single quarter of their entire term?  An economy that has had no productivity growth for almost five years?     House prices that, in our largest city, have gone through the roof?  Exports that are shrinking as a share of GDP?    And, at best, anaemic per capita real GDP growth?   If it is a weakness for Labour, it must be in large part because (a) their messaging has been terrible, and (b) nothing they offer seems likely to make any very decisive difference to the mass of ordinary New Zealanders.

What might?   Here’s my list of three main sets of proposals.    An effective confident radical Labour Party could offer the public these sorts of measures –  in fact, on some points arguably only a left-wing party could effectively do so (Nixon to China, and all that).

  1. A serious commitment to cheap urban land and much lower construction costs.
    • In a country with abundant land, urban land prices are simply scandalous.   The system is rigged, intentionally or not, against the young and the poor, those just starting out.  Too many of Jacinda Ardern’s own generation simply cannot afford to buy a house.
    • To the extent that there are poverty and inequality issues in New Zealand, many of them increasingly trace back to the shocking unaffordability of decent housing.   With interest rates at record lows, housing should never have been cheaper or easier to put in place.
    • And yet instead of committing to get land and house prices down again, the Labour Party has been reluctant to go beyond talk of stabilising at current levels.  Talk about entrenching disadvantage……(and advantage).
    • It is fine to talk about the government building lots of houses, but the bigger –  and more fundamental –  issue is land prices.  It is outrageous, and should be shameful, for people to be talking of “affordable” houses of $500000, $600000 or even more, in a country of such modest incomes.  International experience shows one can have, sustainably, quite different –  much better –  outcomes, but only if the land market is substantially deregulated.
    • I don’t have any problem if people want to live in denser cities –  I suspect mostly they don’t –  but it is much easier and quicker to remove the boundaries on physical expansion of cities (while putting in place measure for the associated infrastructure).   Labour’s policy documents have talked of moves in this direction –  as National’s used to do –  but it is never a line that has been heard from the party leader.     If –  as I propose –  population growth is cut right back, there won’t be much more rapid expansion of cities, but make the legislative and regulatory changes, and choice and competition will quickly collapse the price of much urban, and potentially developable, land.
    • It is clear that there is also something deeply amiss with our construction products market –  no one seriously disputes that basic building products are much more expensive here than in Australia or the US.  Make a firm commitment to fix this.  Perhaps it involves Commerce Commission interventions (supported by new legislation?)?  Perhaps it might even involve –  somewhat heretically –  a government entity entering the market directly.     But commit to change, to producing something far better for New Zealanders.
    • The vision should be one in which house+land prices are quickly –  not over 20 years –  headed back to something around three times income.  A much better prospect for the next generation.
    • No one will much care about rental property owners who might lose in this transition –  they bought a business, took a risk, and it didn’t pay off.  That is what happens when regulated industries are reformed and freed up.    It isn’t credible –  and arguably isn’t fair –  that existing owner-occupiers (especially those who just happened to buy in the last five years) should bear all the losses.   Compensation isn’t ideal but even the libertarians at the New Zealand Initiative recognise that sometimes it can be the path to enabling vital reforms to occur.  So promise a scheme in which, say, owner-occupiers selling within 10 years of purchase at less than, say, 75 per cent of what they paid for a house, could claim half of any additional losses back from the government (up to a maximum of say $100000).  It would be expensive but (a) the costs would spread over multiple years, and (b) who wants to pretend that the current disastrous housing market isn’t costly in all sorts of fiscal (accommodation supplements) and non-fiscal ways.
  2. Deep cuts in taxes on business and capital income
    • the political tide is running the other way on this one –  calls for increased taxes on foreign multi-nationals and so on –   but it remains straightforwardly true that taxes on business activity are borne primarily not by “the rich”, but by workers, in the form of lower incomes than otherwise.  So if you really care about New Zealand workers’ prospects, cut those taxes, deeply.
    • and one of the bigger presenting symptoms of New Zealand’s economic problems is relatively low levels of business investment.   Taxes aren’t the only thing businesses  –  and owners of capital  –  think about, but they are almost pure cost.   Tax a discretionary activity and you’ll get a lot less of it.   That is especially true as regard foreign investment –  those owners of foreign capital have no need to be here if the after-tax returns aren’t great.  For all the (mostly misplaced) concerns about sovereignty, foreign investment benefits New Zealanders –  ordinary working New Zealanders.     Cut the tax rates on such activity  –  they are already higher than in most advanced countries –  and you’ll see more of it taking place.    More investment, and higher labour productivity, translates into meaningful prospects of much higher on-market wages –  the sorts of wages they have in the advanced countries we were once richer than.
    • simply cutting the company tax rate will make a material difference to potential foreign investors.   It won’t make much difference for New Zealanders’ looking to build or expand businesses here, because of our imputation system    That’s why I’ve argued previously for adopting a Nordic system of income taxation  –  in which capital income is taxed at a lower rate than labour income.  Note the description –  it is a system not run in some non-existent libertarian “paradise” but in those bastions of social democracy, the Nordic countries.  Not because they want to advantage owners of capital over providers of labour, but because the recognise the well-established economic proposition that taxes on capital are mostly borne in the former of lower returns to labour.
    • some argue against cuts to business taxes on the grounds that it will provide a windfall to firms (especially foreign firms) already operating here.  Mostly, that is false.  It might be true if foreign firms dominated our tradables sector –  where product selling prices are set internationally.  But in New Zealand, foreign investment is much more important in the non-tradables sectors.  Cut taxes on, say, the banks, and you’ll find the gains being competed away, flowing back to New Zealand firms and households in lower fees and interest margins.  If for some reason it doesn’t happen, feel free to invoke the Commerce Commission (and/or expand its powers).
    • much lower business taxes should be a no-brainer for an intellectually self-confident centre-left party serious about doing something about long-term economic underperformance and lifting medium-term returns to labour.     I’m not really a fan of capital gains taxes, but if you need political cover promise a well-designed CGT –  it probably won’t do much harm, especially if you take seriously the goal of delivering much cheaper houses and urban land (see above –  there won’t be many housing capital gains for a long time).
  3. Deep cuts to target levels of non-citizen immigration
    • This item might be entirely predictable from me, but it is no less important for that.    Labour started out with some rhetoric along these lines, but as I’ve noted previously what they actually came out with was a damp squib, that would change very little beyond a year or so.   So
      • Cut the number of annual residence approvals to 10000 to 15000 per annum –  the same rate, per capita, as in Barack Obama’s (or George Bush’s) United States,
      • Remove the existing rights of foreign students to work in New Zealand while studying here.
      • Institute work visa provisions that are  (a) capped in length of time (a single maximum term of three years, with at least a year overseas before any return on a subsequent work visa) and (b) subject to a fee, of perhaps $20000 per annum or 20 per cent of the employee’s annual income (whichever is greater).
    • In substance, you will be putting the interests of New Zealanders first, but you will also strongly give that impression –  a good feature if you are serious about lifting sustained economic performance, while being relentlessly positive about it, and about your aspirations for New Zealanders.
    • Change in this area would immediately take a fair degree of pressure off house prices, working together with the structural housing/land market reforms (see above) to quickly produce much much more affordable houses and land.  Markets trade on expectations –  land markets too.
    • You’ll also very quickly alter the trajectory of urban congestion –  those big numbers NZIER produced in a report earlier this week.
    • But much more importantly in the longer-term, you’ll be markedly reducing the pressures that give us persistently the highest real interest rates in the advanced world, and
    • In doing so you’ll remove a lot of pressure from the exchange rate.  Lets say the OCR was able to be reduced to around typical advanced country levels (say 0.25 per cent at present).  In that world, the NZD offers no great attraction to foreign (or NZ institutional) holders – it is just one of many reasonably well-governed countries, offering rather low interest rates.  In that world, why won’t the exchange rate be averaging 20 per cent (or more) lower than it is now?
    • And that should be an adjustment to be embraced.  Sure, it will make overseas holidays and Amazon books etc more expensive, but in sense that is part of the point.  We need a rebalanced economy, better-positioned for firms to take on the world from here.  Combine a lower exchange rate, lower interest rates, and lower business tax rates, and you’ll see a lot more investment occurring –  and firms successfully selling more stuff internationally.  And with more investment will come the opportunities for sustainably higher wages –  and all the good stuff the centre-left parties like to do with the fiscal fruits of growth.

I don’t suppose anything like this will actually be part of the fresher approach.  But if it were……we could really look forward to a better, more prosperous, and a fairer New Zealand.